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Thursday, March 31, 2016

Charley Patton: Complete Recordings Vol. 1

CHARLEY PATTON: COMPLETE RECORDINGS: VOL. 1 (1929/2002)

1) Pony Blues; 2) A Spoonful Blues; 3) Down The Dirt Road Blues; 4) Prayer Of Death, Pt. 1; 5) Prayer Of Death, Pt. 2; 6) Screamin' And Hollerin' The Blues; 7) Banty Rooster Blues; 8) Tom Rushen Blues; 9) It Won't Be Long; 10) Shake It And Break It; 11) Pea Vine Blues; 12) Mississippi Boweavil Blues; 13) Lord I'm Discouraged; 14) I'm Goin' Home; 15) Snatch It And Grab It; 16) A Rag Blues; 17) How Come Mama Blues; 18) Voice Throwin' Blues.

The easiest way to get one's Charley Patton homework done is to pick up some nifty 1-CD com­pilation with around 20-25 tracks on it — the man only recorded for about a five-year period, and not each of his songs was stunningly original, to put it mildly (not at all atypical of pre-war bluesmen — or any bluesmen, for that matter). However, since we here at Only Solitaire despise easy ways, the alternate comprehensive road means getting your hands on this 5-CD boxset of Charley Patton's Complete Recordings that covers every single released A- and B-side of his, a few surviving alternate takes, and plenty of additional stuff by other artists where Patton is sitting in on the sessions as a guest vocalist or a guest guitar player — or even is simply thought to be sitting in, with musicologists around the world wrecking their brains over a definitive proof of the man's presence or absence on said tracks.

Indeed, the man is just as much of a mystery to this world as his slightly later, and far more «flashily» mythologized colleague Robert Johnson. Just as with Johnson, there's only one sur­viving photo of Patton; just as Johnson, there are but a handful of legitimate recording sessions that survive; just as Johnson, the man had a unique musical presence that resonates particularly well with the singer-songwriting crowd — an «authenticity» and «honesty» without an ounce of smooth gloss that was typical of «urban blues» performers. Plus, Patton's recording years (1929-1934) pretty much correlate with the darkest Depression years, so he's even more of an epitome of the black man's (or, in fact, any man's) struggle and strife with the world than Johnson, who always comes off as a more introspective, self-immersed fellow.

The first disc of the boxset (we will take them one by one, as if they were five different records) is arguably the best one, covering a lengthy record session that, apparently, all took place on one day (June 14, 1929), with most of the tracks subsequently released on Paramount singles. Only the last four tracks are not really Patton, but a little-known bluesman called Walter "Buddy Boy" Hawkins, who was decent enough but whose main talent, supposedly, was in adding a bit of corny ventriloquism to the sessions (ʻVoice Throwin' Bluesʼ); Patton is thought to be providing second vocals on ʻSnatch It And Grab Itʼ, but that's about it — the other tracks just provide some extra context for the day.

Anyway, what truly interests us are the 14 tracks that Patton cut himself, and their coolness still shines through despite the crappy sound quality (very typical of all Paramount recordings at the time — the Depression hadn't even started yet, and they were already using subpar material for most of their pressings). For some reason, musicians and critics alike tend to single out ʻPony Bluesʼ — one of Charley's best covered songs and the one to have made it onto the National Recording Preservation Board — and this is why it holds an honorable first place on the disc; but honestly, I am not quite sure what makes it so much greater than any of the other songs, other than being a little slower and more somber than the rest. Maybe it is a bit more straightforwardly «bluesy» — much of the stuff played by Charley veered towards folk- or country-dance, or to­wards traditional gospel — but that does not necessarily make it more haunting and spirited than the superficially «lighter» material.

In any case, thing number one that strikes you about Patton is the voice — the «gravelley» one, a direct predecessor to Howlin' Wolf (who actually interacted with Patton in his younger days and was much influenced by him), though not quite as hellishly sharp-cutting: Patton's strength lies rather in his versatility, as he was capable of excellent modulation, going from high-pitched, near-falsetto stabs to the proverbial gravelley roar and back at will. After a few listens, you will never want to confuse Charley with anybody else — most of his colleagues had softer, smoother, silkier vocal tones, and when people in 1929 heard the guy sing "saddle up my black ma-a-a-a-are" with that low, scrapy, creaky voice of his, quite a few of them, I'm sure, could feel the Devil's breath on their necks (so you gotta love the Library of Congress' penchant for retro-Satanism). It's made even more amusing if you put the voice together with the photograph, which pictures such a hand­some, clean-polished young man in a bowtie (with a rather sullen expression on his face, though — but black artists, unless it was a vaudeville thing, rarely smiled on photos those days in general, even when being relatively well paid).

Compared to That Voice, the man's guitar-playing style is somewhat underrated: like all famous pre-war Delta bluesmen, he has a free-flowing, inventive manner of handling the 12-bar blues structure, far less predictable than the strictly locked style of Chicago and post-Chicago electric bluesmen, but he never goes for «flashiness» like Blind Blake or Blind Lemon Jefferson: in fact, he never even takes a proper solo. He is, however, a master of quirky guitar licks — check out, for instance, the little high-pitched «smirk» that sums up each line of ʻMississippi Boweavil Bluesʼ, or the perfect synchronization of the up-down, up-down guitar and vocals on ʻA Spoon­ful Bluesʼ, or the percussive-tapping style on ʻDown The Dirt Road Bluesʼ. His bag of tricks is not limitless, and pretty soon they start repeating themselves, but Patton clearly paid attention to putting his personal musical stamp on those tunes, instead of simply using the guitar for basic accompaniment like so many B-level players of the era.

And he was quite versatile, too: there is no single overriding theme or mood that would unite these 14 tunes, all of them recorded on the same day. There's your basic ramblin'-man blues (ʻPony Bluesʼ, ʻDown The Dirt Road Bluesʼ), there's sex-crazed blues (ʻA Spoonful Bluesʼ, melo­dically quite far removed from the Willie Dixon version, but lyrically far more straight­forward; ʻBanty Rooster Bluesʼ, a distant predecessor to ʻLittle Red Roosterʼ), there's gospel spirituals (ʻPrayer Of Deathʼ, ʻI'm Goin' Homeʼ), comical dance numbers (ʻShake It And Break Itʼ), and folk chants with a social underpinning (ʻMississippi Boweavil Bluesʼ). That Voice is the one thing that ties it all together, reigning over all the themes and moods like some bulky, brawny Earth Elemental, potentially dangerous but also capable of being your friend if you make all the right moves. Like giving the record a well-deserved thumbs up, for instance, regardless of the generally awful sound quality (which is reflected most badly on the guitar sound, but no crackles or pops can do away with The Voice).

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Cardiacs: On Land And In The Sea

CARDIACS: ON LAND AND IN THE SEA (1989)

1) Two Bites Of Cherry; 2) Baby Heart Dirt; 3) The Leader Of The Starry Skies; 4) I Hold My Love In My Arms; 5) The Duck And Roger The Horse; 6) Arnald; 7) Fast Robert; 8) Mare's Nest; 9) The Stench Of Honey; 10) Buds And Spawn; 11) The Safety Bowl; 12) The Ever So Closely Guarded Line.

Listening to this album, which many regard as the band's ultimate masterpiece, is pretty much the aural equivalent of going, at irregular, but immediate, intervals from 40mph to 80mph to 120mph to 80mph to 40mph to 80mph... you get my drift, and I have serious vestibular problems, too. In other words, it's cool, but... could you slow down, please? Oh, that's right, not slowing down is an integral part of being cool. Well then, like John Lennon said, "count me out... in".

No matter how many times I listen to this stuff, I cannot properly tell one song from another, for the simple reason that almost each of these songs is, in itself, three or four songs, cut up, mixed about, and re-spliced at random (or so it seems to the poor, undefended, naked ear). This is not something they invented on this album, of course — but this is where their song-twisting craft truly reaches its peak, and they juggle these melodies around with such energy and ease as if they all really understood the deep meaning of such juggling.

Unfortunately, this achievement of total perfection in the art of «pop trigonometry» has a nasty trade-off — the songs all collapse together in a flurry, blurry kaleidoscope of craziness that leaves little, if any, place for emotionality. Not even surrealist emotionality, where black is white and wrong is right — these songs are just convoluted hysterical blasts, awesome when taken in in small portions but really wearying down the potential listener (or the actual me) when swallowed all together in one go. Something like ʻThe Duck And Roger The Horseʼ, for instance, gallops along with tremendous force and makes great use of the collective power of hard rock chords and organ barrages, but when placed in between half a dozen songs on both sides that also tax your nerves to the extreme, the typical reaction might just be «enough, already!»

Exhausted and nerve-wracked, I find myself instinctively searching for something simple, repe­titive, unpretentious... and I kind of find it with ʻArnaldʼ, a triumphant power-pop tune that is al­most too repetitive, with an eight-note martial refrain and a brute hard rock riff to bounce it off; and then, maybe, with ʻThe Ever So Closely Guarded Lineʼ, the obligatory «grand finale» that closes the curtain with slow tempos, majestic keyboards, and a (feeble) attempt at an epic cres­cendo. Apart from that, the songs just daze and daze and daze me with insane numbers of cos­tume changes from bar to bar, which sometimes make Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant come across as pathetic failures. Then again, it was up to Tim Smith to beat their records, not vice versa, and he seems to have done nicely — coming out with probably the most complex pop record of 1989.

Would it be justified to say that On Land And In The Sea makes absolutely no sense? One pro­bably shouldn't be rushing to give an answer, but I am pretty sure I will never like it more than A Little Man, if only because it has no equivalent of ʻIs This The Life?ʼ — a straightforward, un­derstandable, tumultuous song that stood out very sharply from the rest — and because some­times too much is too much. I cannot even comment on any of the individual songs because it would have to be a lot of comments on each, and then they would all be the same in the end. To say that this record is «crazy» or that it is a «document on insanity» or anything like that would be too cheap and stereotypical, yet I have no idea of how to expand on that. I totally admire the effort, and as far as «achievements» go, the album totally deserves its thumbs up — especially since I can sense the dedication and the energy sweating from every pore. But then again, you can also go out in the mountains and dedicatedly crush rocks with a sledgehammer until your arms fall off, too, and sometimes I get the uncomfortable feeling that this is what Cardiacs were doing, too, on land and in the sea.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Camel: Breathless

CAMEL: BREATHLESS (1978)

1) Breathless; 2) Echoes; 3) Wing And A Prayer; 4) Down On The Farm; 5) Starlight Ride; 6) Summer Lightning; 7) You Make Me Smile; 8) Sleeper; 9) Rainbow's End.

Finally, a certified sellout! With the same lineup as on Rain Dances, Latimer and Bardens take Camel on a relaxed journey that combines traces of their «progressive» past with pure pop, simple balladry, and even a few escapades into the corny world of contemporary dance music (ʻSummer Lightningʼ borders on disco). With so much evidence in hand to make a perfectly winnable case, prog fans usually say that this is the point at which Camel finally sheds its hump and ceases to exist as a means of transporting the listener to magical musical worlds.

Despite this, and despite the even more suspicious fact that Breathless is also a fairly «happy» record for Camel, I have always felt attracted to it — perhaps because the songs harbor some sort of bright collective innocence. Even the two syrupy ballads, ʻYou Make Me Smileʼ and ʻRain­bow's Endʼ, which usually receive the lion's share of hatred, are well-written and lack some of the cheesier trappings typically associated with such material — ʻYou Make Me Smileʼ may be riding a simplistic danceable bassline, but Latimer's tender vocal delivery still wins over with its quiet humility; the intonations and hooks put it closer to contemporary pop material by the Kinks and Fleetwood Mac's Christine McVie rather than Styx or Foreigner or Chicago. And even if the falsetto vocal harmonies on ʻRainbow's Endʼ are a cringeworthy misstep, overdone to irritating point, the basic vocal melody itself is quite nicely modulated.

There's some really odd stuff, too, like Richard Sinclair's ʻDown On The Farmʼ, which begins quite deceptively with some huge power chords, like a monster Boston-style arena rocker — then, in one single whiff, turns into a quiet rural Brit-pop ditty that would not feel completely out of place on The Cheerful Insanity Of Giles, Giles & Fripp (a bit of extra humor and absurdity wouldn't hurt, though). ʻStarlight Rideʼ, with its smoothly sustained keyboard parts and gentle harmonies, sounds like London Town-era (i. e. contemporary) Paul McCartney with an extra baroque touch. And ʻSummer Lightningʼ basically just commits the crime of employing a dance signature, otherwise fully preserving Camel's aesthetics of quiet, unassuming, melancholic jazz-pop (it also features Latimer's most energetic-aggressive solo on the entire album).

The conservative spirit rules on two «prog leftovers», the seven-minute semi-epics ʻEchoesʼ (no relation to Floyd) and ʻSleeperʼ, of which the former has a pretty main theme in the guise of a psychedelic waltz, and the latter is an unremarkable exercise in fusion, truly the «sleeper» of the album. Essentially, it is as if you had a choice here — do you want the old Camel with its tired prog vibe, or the new Camel with its fresh ideas? The new Camel may go disco on your ass, but at least it's got the benefit of unpredictability. The old Camel will not betray its sense of taste and dignity, but it's never going to expand on Snow Goose and Moonmadness. Now it is all up to you, music lovers with an interest in the year nineteen hundred and seventy eight.

Personally, I think that Breathless is one of the better executed «compromises» of the time, and at the very least I'd definitely take it over stuff like Yes' Tormato or Genesis' And Then There Were Three: when Latimer and Bardens go pop, they are brave enough to go all the way that it takes to reach a proper hook, selling out for an actual purpose rather than just selling out and making music that is unsatisfactory from all points of view (not catchy enough to constitute good pop, not complex enough to make up for decent prog). As a result, we have this oddly optimistic record, full of good, friendly vibes presented without too much sentimentalism and without any unwarranted pathos whatsoever; a record that I not only find impossible to hate, but endorse with all the strength of a firmly fixed thumbs up rating.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Alan Price: The Price To Play

ALAN PRICE: THE PRICE TO PLAY (1966)

1) Barefooting; 2) Just Once In My Life; 3) Going Down Slow; 4) Getting Mighty Crowded; 5) Honky Tonk; 6) Move On Drifter; 7) Mercy Mercy; 8) Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever; 9) Ain't That Peculiar; 10) I Can't Turn You Loose; 11) Critic's Choice; 12) Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo; 13*) Any Day Now; 14*) Never Be Sick On Sunday; 15*) I Put A Spell On You; 16*) Iechyd-Da; 17*) Take Me Home; 18*) Willow Weep For Me; 19*) Yours Until Tomorrow; 20*) Simon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bear; 21*) Who Cares; 22*) Shame.

After Alan Price parted way with The Animals, it took him quite a bit of time to find the proper footing, and at the moment when it came to recording his first album, that time had not yet arrived. As an organ player, Price formed an essential part of the band's R&B sound — as a leader of his own band, The Alan Price Set, and being responsible for the material, the arrange­ments, and the singing, he was nowhere near as effective as Burdon as long as he made the mis­take of standing on the same R&B turf.

Indeed, The Price To Play, which came out in the same year as The Animals' first «priceless» (sorry for even more inevitable puns) album, Animalisms, could have most of its songs recorded by the actual Animals, and nobody would feel the difference — there's quite a comparable selec­tion of rock'n'roll, blues, soul, pop, and R&B, maybe with a slightly less hard edge than Burdon would give it all, but that could have easily been remedied. There ain't a single original compo­sition in sight, and although there is no question about Alan actually loving all this stuff, «loving» a song is hardly the only requirement necessary to make your version of it outstanding.

As an R&B singer, Price hits the right notes, but he is not too powerful, nor is he endowed with some stunningly idiosyncratic vocal timbre — you'd probably have a much harder time trying to memorize his identity on this album than you'd have with, say, Manfred Mann's Paul Jones. As for his keyboard playing, The Price To Play is very definitively a band album, not a solo show­case, democratically allowing all members of The Alan Price Set to flaunt their talents: not a good idea, I'd say, seeing as how Alan is the most gifted musician of the lot, and how so much time is taken away from him and donated to the brass players. (On the trivia side, the drummer for this lot is none other than Alan White, whom we would all come to really know later as Bill Bruford's replacement in Yes. No Tales From Topographic Oceans preview here, though).

Not surprisingly, the organ-led instrumentals, such as ʻHonky Tonkʼ and ʻCritic's Choiceʼ, are the most exciting tracks in this lot — on the former, Alan gets to spread his playing wings wider than he could ever allow himself in The Animals. Otherwise, all you really have to do is admire his good taste in R&B covers, but really, you are not missing all that much in life if you do not hear him running through a British-disciplined ʻI Can't Turn You Looseʼ or a smooth, poppy variant of Don Covay's ʻMercy, Mercyʼ, which only one year before was covered by the Stones in a far snappier, edgier manner. And if you want a real corny, catchy version of ʻHi-Lili, Hi-Loʼ, you do not have to go farther than the Manfred Mann version, also from 1965. Ultimately, for most of these tunes, Alan came a little too late and a little too senselessly.

The CD reissue of the album does somehow pump up its value, by throwing on ten additional tracks from contemporary singles and EPs. This includes Alan's first significant solo commercial success in the UK, an organ-led version of ʻI Put A Spell On Youʼ — slyly and subtly re-written and re-arranged so that musically and atmospherically, it brings on associations with ʻHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ (even the solo in the instrumental break begins with precisely the same chords as the ʻHouseʼ solo); and, more importantly, ʻSimon Smith And The Amazing Dancing Bearʼ, an early song by Randy Newman that introduced Alan to music-hall values and pretty much turned his entire subsequent career around. Both tunes are quite nice, even if, as of then, neither of them still suggested that Price would ever become a successful songwriter in his own rights.

Anyway, criticisms aside, it all feels good, friendly, and professional — listening to the record is guaranteed to not cause any harm whatsoever. But clearly, if this were to become Price's regular output, then leaving The Animals would have been the biggest blunder he ever made in his life. Fortunately, he was quick enough to realize that himself.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Cabaret Voltaire: Groovy, Laidback And Nasty

CABARET VOLTAIRE: GROOVY, LAIDBACK AND NASTY (1990)

1) Searchin'; 2) Hypnotised; 3) Minute By Minute; 4) Runaway; 5) Keep On (I Got This Feeling); 6) Magic; 7) Time Beats; 8) Easy Life; 9) Rescue Me (City Lights).

I must say that I am a tiny bit fascinated with how Cabaret Voltaire's transformation took place so slowly, meticulously, and at such a smooth rate — from The Covenant, with its emotionally neutral substance set to Charles Manson spookiness, to Code, with its purely formal darkness over unassuming dance rhythms, and finally to this record, which completely discards all traces of the band's seedy past and, in fact, in select places sounds like Phil Collins.

Okay, so actually some sources suggest that the album may have been influenced by the acid house genre. Me not having had much interest towards trendy electronic developments in the late Eighties (I was kind of more into Creedence Clearwater Revival at the time), I'm still not entirely sure what «acid house» is, but if it's, let's say, 808 State, then this album is definitely not even close to «acid house», because the only thing «acid» about it is how it eats away my ears with its bland, stupid-sounding rhythms. As far as I can tell now, twenty-five years after the fact, this is just run-of-the-mill dance music, without any serious hooks (which is normal for CV) and with­out any captivating atmospheric twists (which is not normal).

The opening number, ʻSearchin'ʼ, is fairly typical of the record as a whole: house rhythms, simple repetitive piano notes, disco strings, and unexpectedly high-pitched, sentimental vocals from Mr. Mallinder — it's nice to finally see him introduce some diversity into his singing, but not at such a terrible cost, because this here is not true Cabaret Voltaire, nor is it any other sort of decent music. Track after track, you get bales of club fodder whose only purpose (get you dancing to those hot new rhythms) outlived itself a long time ago. A little bit of rapping (ʻRunawayʼ) does neither harm nor good, but for the most part the tracks are remarkably monotonous.

I am pretty sure that only a major, major fan of generic late Eighties' dance muzak could still hold some love in his/her heart for this stuff. It is not even clear to me if this was an intentional sellout or more of an «experiment» — possibly the latter, considering that already the next album would bring back a little of that true CV essence. Regardless of whether they did this for money pur­poses or out of a crazy ar­tistic whim, Groovy, Laidback & Nasty is very clearly the nadir of the band's career. Even the album title is like a self-parody. It's a good thing nobody was interested, though, or we might have ended up with a whole series of such turds. Thumbs down.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Can: Tago Mago

CAN: TAGO MAGO (1971)

1) Paperhouse; 2) Mushroom; 3) Oh Yeah; 4) Halleluwah; 5) Aumgn; 6) Peking O; 7) Bring Me Coffee Or Tea.

Acknowledged almost everywhere as the ultimate Can masterpiece, Tago Mago is indeed the most uncompromising, relentless, brutal exhibition of the Can aesthetics that money can buy, which should also register a warning for the not-so-extreme-minded: four LP sides with but seven tracks worth of material, and two of them with very little rhythm support to speak of, can be quite a heavy burden on the unitiated, who should rather start out with Soundtracks.

As far as kick-ass statements go, I'm pretty sure Can never made a stronger one. Tago Mago is a dark-'n'-brooding piece, exploring the world of insanity and brutality that is so wonderfully en­cap­sulated in the sleeve photo: see how it seems to picture an infra-red portrait of an individual spitting out pieces of his own brain, but that same portrait also has the shape of a nuclear mush­room cloud? Well, you could dream of something like that just listening to some of this music, without taking a single look at the cover.

Technically, Tago Mago completes the transformation of Can from a jam-based outfit into a «jam-splice-based» unit: most of the songs here have improvisational studio jams as their founda­tion, but all of them are then taken by Czukay and «treated» with additional overdubs, shortened and spliced with artistic purposes, as if Holger knew very well which moments of the sessions «meant» something, which ones had to be embellished to mean something, and which ones were senseless and had to be cut. You could, perhaps, call that a waste of time if most of the material did not indeed sound so awesome — a great lesson for so many psychedelic bands who thought that the very fact of a group of free people freely experimenting in the studio should necessarily result in great art. Amazingly, despite all the doctoring, all the tracks still preserve a certain raw, visceral quality to them, which we should ascribe to Czukay's absolute professionalism.

When I'm talking about raw/visceral, I, of course, mean primarily the rhythm section. If ʻMother Skyʼ used a simplistic 4/4 beat and could still put you in a trance any second, then Tago Mago shows how they can do the same thing with slightly trickier means. In particular, ʻHalleluhwahʼ, stretched over the entire second side of the LP, rides on an absolute monster of a groove, captured so brilliantly you can almost feel Liebezeit's entire drumkit rattling and wobbling on its platform, while the bass is pumping up a feeling of inescapable doom. Honestly, the rest does not even matter all that much — there are some fine, diverse guitar solos in all sorts of styles and tonalities, there's Suzuki spewing crazy desperation ("searching for my brother, yes I am!") all over the place, but my attention (and spirit) just remain chained to that groove all the way through (there's a very short bit early on in the song where the groove disappears for a moody piano interlude, and it almost makes me sad — fortunately, it's just a thirty second splice). How the heck is it even humanly possible to play that sort of stuff so unfalteringly for such a long time? Must be far more difficult to get yourself that disciplined than going all-out crazy a la Keith Moon.

The shorter tracks on the first side are not quite that powerful, but they also form the emotional center of the album — the slow, trudging ʻPaperhouseʼ is like the soundtrack to a funeral cere­mony in a madhouse; ʻMushroomʼ, naturally referring to a nuclear strike, is particularly poignant given its vocalization by a Japanese singer ("when I saw mushroom head, I was born and I was dead"); and ʻOh Yeahʼ, into which ʻMushroomʼ transitions after an actual nuclear blast, is the album's fastest bit of music, but also one of the most psychedelic, with backward vocals and synth notes that morph into gushing wind as they fade away. This is not «just jamming» — this is every bit the equivalent of the Stooges' Fun House, only substituting a more complex and dis­ciplined approach in the place of Iggy and Co.'s untamed infernal energy. The message is the same, though — music can symbolize and convey the collective madness of humanity better than any other medium.

You have to keep that message very firmly in mind when listening to the second LP, because I vividly remember myself hating ʻAumgnʼ and ʻPeking Oʼ — why on earth, thought I, when we have here easily the best rhythm section of 1971 bar none, do we have to waste so much time on two astral freakouts that feature no rhythm section whatsoever? But even the cavernous echoes and keyboard escapades of ʻAumgnʼ are quite a step up from anything in the same style done by, say, the Grateful Dead — just because there's a fascinating tension to every single bit of the track, and because you can visualize it as a dangerous journey through the corridors, winding paths, and precipices located inside somebody's brain; if the first LP was completely «external», now the sensations are being «internalized», and where you first had access to the outward manifestations of insanity, now you are being put inside, where it sure ain't pretty but sure is suspenseful. ʻPe­king Oʼ is not quite as impressive, largely because there's too much emphasis on outdated elec­tronics (the drum machine stuff is particularly flimsy) and because Suzuki's speaking-in-tongues on that particular track veers into the comical; but it is also shorter, and it does actually succeed in bringing the rhythm section back towards the end, so it's not a big problem.

Like Soundtracks, Tago Mago also ends with something relatively close to a «normal» moody tune, the drone-based ʻBring Me Coffee Or Teaʼ, where things sort of calm down after the storm, but clearly indicating that this is just a pause, as the madness dies down because the madman has temporarily run out of energy and is now quietly rocking back and forth in a dazed, depressed, zombie-like state, his mind quietly preparing for psychotic phase two. ʻShe Brings The Rainʼ was not exactly a happy song, but it reflected a certain mode of inner peace and quiet; ʻBring Me Coffee Or Teaʼ ends Can's alleged masterpiece with a musical cliffhanger, or, at least, a clear indica­tion that this disturbed state of mind is here to stay for a long, long time.

Paradoxically, perhaps, Tago Mago is far from the most «typical» Can album. The band's flirt with musical insanity would go on for a brief while, but overall, future releases would become more and more disciplined, more concentrated on the groove than the atmosphere; and if the atmosphere were still present, it would rather be an otherworldly atmosphere than this horrid feeling of being trapped inside a madman's mind. Since rock music and rock criticism has this long history of flirting with darkness and insanity, it is not surprising that Tago Mago has be­come, for so many people, the Can album par excellence; yet in reality, it represents but one par­ticular stage of evolution for the band, although for Damo Suzuki, it was certainly his shining hour of glory (his vocal presence on the following two albums being far less important). That said, on the «Great Mad Albums» shelf that was so densely populated in the late Sixties and early Seventies, Tago Mago has itself quite a place of honor — thumbs up, totally. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Byrds: In The Beginning

THE BYRDS: IN THE BEGINNING (1964/1988)

1) Tomorrow Is A Long Ways Away; 2) Boston; 3) The Only Girl I Adore; 4) You Won't Have To Cry; 5) I Knew I'd Want You; 6) The Airport Song; 7) The Reason Why; 8) Mr. Tambourine Man; 9) Please Let Me Love You; 10) You Movin'; 11) It Won't Be Wrong; 12) You Showed Me; 13) She Has A Way; 14) For Me Again; 15) It's No Use; 16) Here Without You; 17) Tomorrow Is A Long Ways Away (acoustic).

«The Great Lost Byrds Album». Well, maybe not that great, and not that lost, either, considering that the majority of these tracks (albeit in slightly alternate takes) were originally released in 1969 as Preflyte, an album that actually sold better than the contemporary Dr. Byrds & Mr Hyde, what with the public ready to show McGuinn what they thought of his Clark-less, Crosby-less, Hillman-less «Byrds». Still, in its expanded form, released on CD as In The Beginning in the late Eighties, this is a pretty nice little record, well worth owning to logically round out the catalog. In fact, nothing seriously prevents us from counting it as the first, «quintessentially early» Byrds album, their equivalent of a Please Please Me or a Bob Dylan, which simply hap­pened to be left on the shelf at the time.

Consisting of early recordings that the band made as The Beefeaters, The Jet Set, and, eventually, The Byrds, In The Beginning's first and biggest surprise is in how many of these early tunes (most of them, in fact) are originals: the Byrds may have been one of the few bands in history that started out cutting nothing but their own songs, only to end up doing Dylan and Pete Seeger be­cause somebody thought they were not worthy. But, actually, they were — these originals are fun, harmless, pleasant, often catchy, and occasionally innovative folk-pop.

From that very beginning, Gene Clark was the primary songwriter: seven songs are credited sole­ly to him, whereas most of McGuinn's songs are co-credited (to McGuinn/Clark or McGuinn/ Crosby). His strong debt to The Beatles and particularly The Searchers is clear, but he does his best to come up with original melodies, and sometimes makes bold decisions: ʻBostonʼ is the most striking of these, combining moody folk harmonies with the bass line of ʻMemphis Ten­nesseeʼ — pretty much an epitome of what «folk-rock» should be all about — but it's hardly the best song of the lot, just an example of what strange direction the mind of this promising young fellow could choose in the age of ʻHouse Of The Rising Sunʼ.

On the whole, the Byrds were working very strictly in the «pop» idiom, despite their fascination with Greenwich Village: all the songs are short, all the songs follow the verse/chorus/bridge structure, all the songs strive to have hooks, and the lyrical and emotional sides do not show much depth, let alone «vision». Little love songs, ranging from the way-too-cute (ʻThe Only Girl I Adoreʼ — hey, David Crosby co-wrote it! Hey, how come he never sings it live? It's so much better than ʻAlmost Cut My Hairʼ!) to the gallant serenade (ʻTomorrow Is A Long Ways Awayʼ, whose medievalistic romanticism borders on the laughable, but the harmonies are too gorgeous and elegant to laugh away). There's an early version of ʻMr. Tambourine Manʼ, all right, but no 12-string jangle yet — no chance for this particular version to change the face of the musical business. But the seeds are all there.

Some of the tunes would later end up on the band's first two albums or the accompanying B-sides, but really, with the exception of one or two really trite songs (ʻThe Only Girl I Adoreʼ even has the gall to end up with a «seductive» Beatlesque ʻoh-ohʼ flourish — ridiculous!), most of them could be tightened up to the status of semi-classics. ʻThe Airport Songʼ is actually giving us an almost mature David Crosby (at least, his starry-eyed singing style is already in place); ʻThe Reason Whyʼ and ʻFor Me Againʼ are as introspective as Clark would ever get, and so on. Per­haps the thing that we subconsciously miss the most on these songs is the Wrecking Crew — apparently, the band members are playing all their instruments here, and so the recordings lack the necessary polish. On the other hand, at least this shows that they could play their instruments as early as 1964 — not to mention write their own songs, which was not a typical ability for beginning pop bands circa 1964. And at most, this is a record that one can actually keep for en­joyment, rather than pure historical interest, so "it won't be wrong" to issue it a proper thumbs up and state that it is a definite must-own for any half-serious Byrds lover.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Cardiacs: Live

CARDIACS: LIVE (1988)

1) The Icing On The World; 2) To Go Off And Things; 3) In A City Lining; 4) Gina Lollobrigida; 5) There's Too Many Irons In The Fire; 6) Tarred And Feathered; 7) Goosegash; 8) Loosefish Scapegrace; 9) Cameras; 10) Is This The Life; 11) Big Ship.

This is possibly the best Cardiacs album available on the market, and I'm not joking. Following a first attempt at a live presentation (Rude Bootleg from 1986), which was somewhat shorter and slightly inferior in quality, the band hit it just right on their second live album, recorded at the Paradiso in Amsterdam on May 15, 1988 with first-rate equipment and capturing the band in all of their visionary-demented glory.

Like most pop or progressive bands, Cardiacs tend not to stray away from the original versions of the songs in live performance; at best, they may add a brief atmospheric intro, never allowing themselves to break away into free-form jamming or even a mighty drum solo (this is why the review will be brief, because there are no specific details to discuss). However, they also have that punkish streak, and this means throwing themselves into battle with fiery gusto, pounding the shit out of their instruments and straining the vocals to breaking point where necessary. So, true to the «pronk» moniker, they implement it on stage by combining technical precision and accu­racy with increased energy — if you thought the studio recordings were already crackling with electricity, these live performances will blow them away in terms of sheer power.

The other major benefit of the album is the high quality of the setlist, making it essentially a «best-of» package without turning it into a compilation. Most of the catchiest highlights from the 1984-88 period make the list, which is as emotionally and stylistically diverse and entertaining as it could possibly get; it is possible to get a very representative overview of what the Cardiacs were really all about from the album — all except the accompanying stage show, uncapturable on an audio record (and the stage banter is also cut surprisingly short, limited to just a tiny handful of quips, jokes, and announcements).

Normally, I tend to shrug such records off, as they tend to be cash-grabbers or time-fillers; but much of the band's reputation (and most of their money, I suppose) was really based on live playing, and the total dedication with which they throw themselves into each of these songs is the best proof that they actually took themselves seriously — that their mix of pop-punk energy and progressive complexity was more than just a sarcastic put-on. It does not make the overall enigma any easier to crack, but it brings them a tiny bit closer, and makes them feel a little bit more humane and friendly. An important record, well worth a thumbs up.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Camel: Rain Dances

CAMEL: RAIN DANCES (1977)

1) First Light; 2) Metrognome; 3) Tell Me; 4) Highways Of The Sun; 5) Unevensong; 6) One Of These Early Days I'll Get An Early Night; 7) Elke; 8) Skylines; 9) Rain Dances.

At this point, members of the Progressive Club usually begin having reservations about Camel's alleged loyalty. Not only does this period initiate the break-up of the original band, as Doug Ferguson is replaced on bass by Richard Sinclair (formerly of Caravan) and ex-King Crimsonian Mel Collins is added on sax, but it also initiates the drift towards a more commercial sound, as experienced, first and foremost, on the lead single ʻHighways Of The Sunʼ — with its straight­forward rhythmic punch, anthemic catchy vocal, and joyful-optimistic atmosphere. Actually, there is little to distinguish the song from contemporary arena-ready soft-rock; it could have been produced by anybody from Chicago to Styx, and it sure as hell did not need to be produced by Camel, a band to which sunny optimism comes as naturally as reggae comes to AC/DC.

However, outside of the radio-oriented single (which did not seriously chart anyway), Rain Dances is actually not that much of a sellout. More accurately, it is a somewhat blander, limper companion to the atmospheric soundscapes of Moonmadness, with a similar mix of symph-prog, pop, jazz-fusion, and ambience, only more flaccid hooks and an even stronger promise to never erupt from the cozy comfy background. Not even Brian Eno, when invited to contribute on the most ambient of the tracks, ʻElkeʼ, can do much to break the quiet, uninvolving pleasantness: he may have been concocting mindblowing sonic panoramas for Bowie at the same time, but for Latimer, he just dishes out a standard synth canvas that merely serves as support for Andy's lazy, pretty, unmemorable flute solo. Did they really need Brian for that one? Gee, I hope he at least got underpaid for this hackjob.

I think the only track here that consistently gets respect from «serious» fans is ʻUnevensongʼ, be­cause it, like, shifts keys and gears several times from beginning to end. But it sounds too fragile and fluffy for me to like it because of its energy, and too unfocused in any of its sections to like it because of its beauty or melodicity. Too much sunshine and not enough rain — too much tender­ness that is not properly supported by outstanding hooks, and the dynamics is wasted, too, be­cause the tricky time signature section in the middle, which the syncopated bass and the grumbly synthesizers would probably want to present as a disturbing counterpoint, is not played with enough feeling. In fact, very little on the album is played with enough feeling — you almost get the impression that the entire band was suffering from a severe vitamin deficit at the time.

The entire band shares credits on ʻOne Of These Early Daysʼ, a funky fusion track, almost bor­dering on disco in spots — with a series of keyboard, sax, and guitar solos that should qualify as «easy listening» (Latimer goes for a Santana kind of sound... but why?). Again, it is the kind of music that would be perfect as the theme for a mid-Seventies TV talk show, but it is pretty hard to acknowledge it as an actual work of art... and since pretty much the same goes for everything else here, I would like to just cut the review short and say that, of all Camel albums in the 1970s, this one is arguably the least essential — although the Progressive Club predictably rates it higher than Breathless, I profoundly disagree, because I by far prefer this band abandoning all progres­sive ambitions and going all-out pop than hanging in between, loosening and softening the complexity and energy of their music, but still refusing to make it catchy. Therefore, feel free to just skip Puddle Dances as a misguided transitional album, and see them reinvent themselves with a vengeance on whatever followed.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Buddy Guy (w. Memphis Slim): Southside Reunion

BUDDY GUY: SOUTHSIDE REUNION (w. Memphis Slim) (1972)

1) When Buddy Comes To Town; 2) How Long Blues; 3) Good Time Charlie; 4) You Call Me At Last; 5) You're The One; 6) No; 7) Help Me Some; 8) Rolling And Tumbling; 9*) Jamming At The Castle; 10*) You're The One (alt. version).

Strictly speaking, this is more of a Memphis Slim record than a Buddy Guy one: he is listed first of the two, he sings most of the vocals, and he apparently dominates the track selection. But that does not formally prevent one from including it in Buddy Guy's discography, and besides, it's a nice record, so let us use Buddy's involvement in it as a pretext to give it a friendly mention that it totally deserves.

The session in question was recorded by Slim and Buddy when they happened to cross paths in Europe, when Buddy was touring with the Stones, and is marked as having taken place on Sep­tember 17-18, 1970. Subsequent information, as it always happens, in controversial: apparently, the album was released by Warner Bros. in 1972, but since then, there's been at least several official and unofficial re-releases, on different labels and with different track listings. My version is a 2004 CD reissue on the French specialized Maison de Blues label, with eight «main» and two «bonus» tracks, whatever that might mean in the present case. Yours might be different, and in time, we may hold an international symposium to sort it out and draw scientific conclusions.

In the meantime, what matters is that this is (predictably) not a very original or deeply inspired blues jam session, but (unpredictably) with a pretty high fun quotient. With Junior Wells joining the dynamic duo on harmonica, and a strong brass section in tow, much of the accent is placed on energetic boogie numbers, like the opening ʻWhen Buddy Comes To Townʼ, and there are few pianists in this world better suited to boogieing the hell out of their instrument than Memphis Slim, one of the few to not only perfectly feel the spirit of the pre-war jump blues of Pete Johnson and Amos Milburn, but to expand on it with more complex, but no less fun playing. On all these numbers, it is Slim, not Buddy, who is the real hero — but Buddy is also doing his best, playing "thin" jump blues guitar in the style of Chuck Berry or even T-Bone Walker rather than doing his Hendrix imitations.

Most of the songs here are credited to "Peter Chatman" — the name of Memphis Slim's (John Len Chatman's) father, to whom Slim respectfully credited all of his own compositions; but, also quite predictably, there is really not much here in terms of composition, since you can find all of these melodies on, say, a best-of compilation by T-Bone Walker or quite a few other old rhythm-and-bluesmen. Only ʻRolling And Tumblingʼ continues to be credited to Muddy Waters, even if that is actually the one song that has changed the most, being converted to a slow 12-bar blues and losing its distinctive melody — a rare case where old lyrics were transposed to a new arran­gement rather than vice versa.

I cannot insist that Memphis Slim and Buddy Guy are a perfect pair for each other, but I do know that two great players on a generic blues recording is always a better bet than one, and if you throw in Junior's harmonica, you get stuff like ʻJamming At The Castleʼ, three minutes of fast, intense blues-boogie that is well worth the price of the entire album. And it does include some of the best examples of Buddy's "traditional-restrained", but still mighty energetic guitar playing that would rarely, if ever, be heard in his late Seventies' / early Eighties' period, let alone the post-Damn Right revival — so a gentle thumbs up is perfectly justified.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

David Bowie: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (IAS #012)

Today's IAS review is:

David Bowie: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars

(given the RYM ratings from one month ago, should have been Pet Sounds, really, but fortunately, Brian Wilson is still alive).

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cabaret Voltaire: Code

CABARET VOLTAIRE: CODE (1987)

1) Don't Argue; 2) Sex, Money, Freaks; 3) Thank You America; 4) Here To Go; 5) Trouble (Won't Stop); 6) White Car; 7) No One Here; 8) Life Slips By; 9) Code.

This, I believe, is where it makes all kinds of sense to jump ship. If The Covenant made at least superficial efforts to preserve Cabaret Voltaire's psycho atmosphere, Code just drops it all in favor of a completely redesigned, rebranded, glossed-up sound that makes Cabaret Voltaire no different from dozens, if not hundreds, of artists in the electro-pop genre. Their reliance on «Art Of Noise aesthetics» continues unabated, but there are no signs of a newly found sense of humor, and there is nothing offered to truly delight the senses.

Track after track, everything on Code sounds the same: thick synthetic bass, electronic percus­sion, ornamental synthesizers, and Mallinder's "peril's-always-round-the-corner" vocals that we would love to hear resolve themselves in a mighty scream at least once — suspense is fine, but not when it lasts forever; eventually, it ceases to be suspense and becomes routine. If Mallinder and Kirk were masters of the pop hook, things could be brighter; they are not, though, and neither do they qualify as masters of the electronic groove.

It does not really get any better or any worse than the first track. Like the Manson-soaked tracks on Covenant, ʻDon't Argueʼ tries to brew up a feeling of danger and paranoia by sampling dia­log from Your Job In Germany, Frank Capra's «training» movie for GIs who occupied Germany in 1945, with stern "you will not be friendly... you will be aloof..." warnings scattered all over the track. Problem is, the remaining parts of the track are simply too emotionally weak to be com­patible with Capra's genuinely serious overdubs. What are they trying to scare us with — the bubbly bass? The thin, wimpy, string synths? The hushed multi-tracked vocal melody? Yes, it is objectively «paranoid-sounding», but for all these much-clichéd tricks, you can clearly feel that the major focus is on the danceable rhythm, not the atmosphere that goes with it. In fact, remove the film overdubs and it's like... third prize in the local «create-your-own-Prince-groove» high school competition or something. Useless, really.

And with that heavy feeling, you discover the second track (ʻSex, Money, Freaksʼ) and you find out that its vibe is pretty much the same. All the ingredients are the same — and the final effect is the same: danceable, for sure, but artistically bland. Third, fourth, fifth track... all the same, all the way to the end. Honestly, I have not the faintest idea why anybody should have listened to this back in 1987, let alone now. Thumbs down, and let's be done with it, because other than a bunch of expletives, I cannot think of anything else in the constructive vein.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Can: Soundtracks

CAN: SOUNDTRACKS (1970)

1) Deadlock; 2) Tango Whiskyman; 3) Deadlock (version 2); 4) Don't Turn The Light On, Leave Me Alone; 5) Soul Desert; 6) Mother Sky; 7) She Brings The Rain.

Next to Tago Mago, this album always gets a relatively bad rap as a «transitional» effort, and, well, objectively it is «transitional» — not only is this a fairly non-conceptual mix of various pieces of music that Can composed for contemporary movie soundtracks to make a living, but it also features both their old vocalist and the new one, Damo Suzuki, literally recruited from the street in Munich where Czukay and Liebezeit found him busking outside a cafe. Clearly, it is hard to approach this stuff from a completely unbiased perspective.

And yet, somehow I'd say that Soundtracks has the unexpected benefit of encapsulating, in but 35 minutes, just about everything that Can were capable of. By being pulled together from a vari­ety of different sources, it is more diverse than any other record of theirs. It does not let you get sick of either Mooney or Suzuki, whose incessant mumblings may fairly quickly lose their arti­stic power and become an irritant (I am definitely not sure that his presence all over Tago Mago is always beneficial). It shows the band as masters of the trance-inducing jam and the occasional unusual pop hook. And the only thing on which it goes easy is their experimentation with arhyth­mic noise... which is actually fine by me, because to me, Can is all about rhythm; whenever the rhythm section takes a break, they lose God status immediately.

Anyway, bias and prejudice notwithstanding, nobody in his right mind ever says a word against ʻMother Skyʼ, a track with which the Can truly arrives — and blows away all jamming compe­tition, with 14 minutes of the most badass sound in the history of jam music, ever. No buildup, no «search for the right groove»: out of nowhere, they immediately jump into the right groove (of course, the track may have been cut out of a much larger session), with two minutes of a shrill, sharp, unrelenting assault on the senses — Liebezeit kicking like an overpaid slave driver, Czukay playing little enticing melodic phrases on top of his own aggressive pounding, and Karoli soloing like a demon, keeping the guitar at high-pitched ecstatic heights without a single break between notes. All of which serves as an introduction to the many subsequent sections, focusing on Suzuki's vocals, guitar solos that alternate between Eastern drone and blues-rock, and just one brief «soft» interlude where bongos replace standard percussion, to let you catch your breath.

The main attraction of ʻMother Skyʼ is that it is actually quite simple — it's not as if Karoli were playing some chords or scales that had not been previously thought of, and the beat is standard, even minimalistic 4/4 (reflecting the so-called Motorik aesthetics). What puts it over the edge is the sheer force and intent invested in the effort — it's as if the musicians believe that the fate of the world is resting on their shoulders, that the universe remains stable only for as long as they carry on their task with complete and utter commitment. On the other side of the English Channel, only Hawkwind were committing themselves with comparable dedication to the same kind of ritualistic primitivism — but Hawkwind came with an atmosphere of corniness and could be laughed off (shouldn't, but could be), whereas Can come with something stranger and spookier.

That strangeness and spookiness manifests itself in quite a few other bits on the album, of course, starting from the very first seconds — the distorted guitar intro to ʻDeadlockʼ, sirening across the living room, swirling around and finally crashing down into the mumbling desperation of Su­zuki's probably-epic vocals. ʻDeadlockʼ was the theme to a spaghetti-western movie of the same name, so they were most likely going for a Morricone-like effect, and there's plenty of echo, desperate shrillness, and dangerous tones all right, but the song is based primarily on drone, so it's like crossing Morricone with The Velvet Underground — to awesome results.

Then there's ʻDon't Turn The Right On, Reave Me Aloneʼ (reflecting Suzuki's predictable struggle with pronun­ciation, though he does make an effort to master the liquidity), which somehow succeeds in con­veying his characteristic «madness» without having to resort to wild screaming or gibberish; and do not forget the creepy acoustic licks, the deceivingly becalmed flute bits, and the unnerving funky beat. ʻTango Whiskymanʼ is probably the weakest of the Su­zuki tracks, because its «tango» rhythmics, in the context of everything else here, sounds some­what parodic; however, hearing Suzuki try to sing a melodic pop melody, come to think of it, may be the weirdest experience of 'em all.

Of the two Mooney tracks, ʻSoul Desertʼ would have fit in very well on Monster Movie, being the same kind of funky repetitive groove with heavy emphasis on over-excited blabber — like a soul man gone crazy (which was more or less the case); but ʻShe Brings The Rainʼ, which they used to close the album after the thunderstorm of ʻMother Skyʼ, is a completely normal-sounding lounge jazz number, with a completely normal (perhaps even too normal) vocal delivery; it only begins to go slightly psychedelic towards the end, when the song's jazz rhythm chords are com­plemented with a quiet, but persistent acid guitar solo (something that all vocal jazz records could benefit from quite heavily, methinks!). On its own, perhaps, ʻShe Brings The Rainʼ would never be a Can classic, but its positioning next to ʻMother Skyʼ is a classic move, and somehow it feels like precisely the right missing piece to complete the puzzle and turn the whole record into a small, elegant, 100%-efficient kaleidoscope of sound.

Anyway, best or not best, Soundtracks is totally essential Can, as well as a merciful introduction for those who like to test their waters before wading in chest-deep: once you get used to ʻMother Skyʼ, you're pretty much ready for most of Tago Mago (which has its fair share of great grooves, but, in my opinion, still has nothing on the sheer all-out ferocity of ʻMother Skyʼ). The «sound­track curse» may have unjustly condemned the album to forever hanging in the shadow of its successors, or in the shadow of all those other innumerable rock classics from 1970, but as long as we still have time to savor all the classics, be sure to keep this one firmly on the list, and here's some major thumbs up from me as an incentive.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

The Byrds: Live At The Royal Albert Hall

THE BYRDS: LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL (1971/2008)

1) Lover Of The Bayou; 2) You Ain't Going Nowhere; 3) Truck Stop Girl; 4) My Back Pages; 5) Baby, What You Want Me To Do; 6) Jamaica Say You Will; 7) Black Mountain Rag/Soldier's Joy; 8) Mr. Tambourine Man; 9) Pretty Boy Floyd; 10) Take A Whiff; 11) Chestnut Mare; 12) Jesus Is Just Alright; 13) Eight Miles High; 14) So You Want To Be A Rock'n'Roll Star; 15) Mr. Spaceman; 16) I Trust; 17) Nashville West; 18) Roll Over Beethoven; 19) Amazing Grace.

Okay, this is no live masterpiece, either, but third time around, they finally got it close to right. This archival release, coming out of the vaults more than 35 years after the original recording was made, has some obvious advantages over both Untitled and Fillmore, to emerge as arguably the single best live document of the Clarence White era — if you still needed convincing that they were a fun live band, and the Albert Hall show still does not convince you, there's probably no hope left for the future.

First, it is much longer than both of these, which is a good thing because it allows them to con­centrate on pretty much every side of their legacy — folk, country, psychedelia, rock, «Ameri­cana» in general, whatever. It is well-structured, with a «breather» all-acoustic section in the middle and a couple proper encores. It does not rely too heavily on new material, with only a couple (good) songs from Byrdmaniax and only three (decent) songs from Untitled. And, most importantly, it reflects a three-year gestation period, meaning that the band had gained quite a bit of muscle since the somewhat insecure beginnings of the Fillmore days.

In particular, this 18-minute version of ʻEight Miles Highʼ (more accurately, ʻImprovisational Variations Around The Theme Of ʻEight Miles Highʼʼ, since the song itself is played for about two minutes only) is much tighter and, I would say, comprehensible than the jam captured on Untitled. If the early McGuinn/White interplay seemed to lack self-assurance and was more like "okay, everybody's doing it, let's try this too and see where it gets us", by 1971, having done it many times over, they sound like they already know the main directions and use the jam as a polygon for testing and expanding the individual players' skills — in particular, the bit where the guitarists go take a smoke and the Battin/Parsons rhythm section stays behind and experiments with key and tempo changes is really quite exciting, as Battin seems to go through every basic rhythm pattern in existence (jazz, blues, boogie, pop, you name it).

The originals still suffer from being too ragged and «earthy» compared to the ethereal studio versions, and McGuinn does not even begin to strive for the same fluidity, precision of phrasing, and tonal beauty that he seemed to so effortlessly achieve in the studio. But this is at least par­tially compensated for by the increased tightness and energy of the rhythm section and the ever more fluent guitar interplay, and besides, individual weaknesses and elements of sloppiness are not so painful when you look at the whole thing as one complex — there's so much collective goodness here that an occasional vocal flub in ʻMy Back Pagesʼ is negligible. And the decision to revert ʻMr. Tambourine Manʼ to its acoustic roots, playing it close to the way Dylan did in 1964, actually works well in concert, where the heavenly effect of the studio 12-string jangle multiplied by immaculate harmonies would have been irreproduceable anyway.

In this context, I do not find the strength to protest even again the inclusion of ʻRoll Over Beet­hovenʼ — a song that was clearly not made with The Byrds in mind, but is still forgivable given the mighty eclectic nature of the show. I mean, they stick it in between a hot-pants rendition of ʻNashville Westʼ and a devoted accappella walk through ʻAmazing Graceʼ, so it's goddamn symbolic — «we're gonna finish off this show for you as hillbillies, rockers, and soulmen». With a little more sense of humor, a little more polish, and a little more energy in the right places they could have turned the show into an unforgettable celebration of both the Byrds' individual legacy and American popular music in general. And, well, it doesn't get quite that high, but they were on the right track.

Who knows, maybe a couple more years of obsessive touring and they'd finally nail it down to perfection... then again, they still wouldn't be able to compete with The Band, who had the advantage of cutting their teeth on classic Dylan tours, fighting off Judasmongers and stuff. But in any case, these 77 minutes are impressive, except you really have to take it all in without a break and disregard the individual scars, seams, and pimples. Thumbs up without any future regrets, I hope.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Cardiacs: A Little Man And A House And The Whole World Window

CARDIACS: A LITTLE MAN AND A HOUSE AND THE WHOLE WORLD WINDOW (1988)

1) A Little Man And A House; 2) In A City Lining; 3) Is This The Life?; 4) Interlude; 5) Dive; 6) The Icing On The World; 7) The Breakfast Line; 8) Victory Egg; 9) R.E.S.; 10) The Whole World Window.

Apparently, this album came out at a very wrong time — even though ʻIs This The Life?ʼ ended up being the band's highest success on charts, the album as a whole was critically panned for its attempt to «revive progressive rock». Had the band waited at least a decade longer, after Radio­head inadvertently melted the ice with OK Computer, the critics may have been somewhat more benevolent — but in 1988, it was all about Sonic Youth and Pixies, and Tim Smith's mix of the carnivalesque with the symphonic just sounded like an irritant to most people's ears. Even if direct comparisons to ELP or even to Marillion (!!) that appeared in contemporary reviews were all just blatant idiocy.

Not that the record is above criticism, of course. It continues and, it could be argued, brings to the highest possible peak the band's personal relation with unpredictable absurdism — one reason why all these «prog» comparisons fail utterly, because unlike ELP or Marillion, Cardiacs never for one second take themselves literally-seriously. By now, Tim Smith sounds like a helium-inflated quasi-parody on Peter Hammill, and the music alternates between «symphony orchestra» and «circus» modes at will, defying all musical logic, sequencing expectations, and simply com­mon sense. There's but two possible ways one can react to this. You can either prefer to have your mind blown — «wow! what was that I've just heard?» — or to have your mind insulted — «oh no, why did I have to waste time on this meaningless shit?»

I will try to combine both ways, because in a relative universe they're both right. On one hand, this is not even an album about madness — this is an album that is meant to make absolutely no sense in our reality. On the other hand, this album invents a new reality of its own, which has certain intersection points with our reality, but largely inverts it. Major is minor, minor is major, happy is sad, funny is bitter, dark is light, black is white and so on. So whenever these guys start whirring and flurring about in a carousel waltz or one of their merry ska interludes, remember that they bleed. Whenever they start playing a shrill, stormy, delirious guitar solo, keep in mind that they thrive. It's an Alice-style mirror world, and you either adapt to it or throw up.

It is a little funny that the most popular song on the album, ʻIs This The Life?ʼ, was actually the third recorded version — as you remember, it made its debut already on Toy World, and it really represents an older stage in the development of the band. Granted, this version is at least expertly produced, with the sax, guitar, and keyboard parts in the climactic instrumental passage perfectly separated from each other; but I do believe that the song's modest success, after the single began to be played on UK radio, was largely due to its similarity with contemporary Cure — not only does Tim Smith sound as bleeding-desperate-romantic as Robert Smith here (well, they don't share that last name for nothing; aren't all Smiths a gloomy breed?), but the overall «depth» of the production and the howling guitars are quite Curish as well.

This hardly applies to stuff like ʻA Little Man And A Houseʻ or ʻIn A City Liningʼ, though, whose music is way too upbeat, keyboard-depending, and quirky to invite comparisons with The Cure or with just about anybody else in 1988. If there is one serious influence from the classic prog era that the music brings to mind, it is Peter Gabriel in early Genesis — a band that also liked to turn comic into tragic and backward in the blink of an eye (think ʻHarold The Barrelʼ or the "you play the hobbyhorse" section of ʻDancing With The Moonlit Knightʼ), although never taking it to the hyperdrive level of Smith and Co. However, behind all of Gabriel's clowning lay an attempt to create meaningful art rather than mysterious dadaism.

Even when, after all the odd clowning, the band winds things up with a slow, stately finale (ʻThe Whole World Windowʼ), all grand piano chords and solemn sax soloing, it is hard to understand what the solemnity is all about. As much as I'd like to identify with the protagonist's emotions, it is hard to do because either the protagonist is from a different planet or he's just a bullshitter. I'd still take this sort of finale over, say, anything stately, anthemic, and utterly trivial by Freddie Mercury, but I'd have to take it on probation — this grandiose soundscape seems to pretend to celebrating beauty, but I am not even sure if we are on the same plane with Cardiacs when thin­king about beauty.

Essentially, the record is an unlockable puzzle — melodic and listenable all the way through (at least you will not have to struggle with ugly chords and unhygienic rhythms à la Trout Mask Replica), but an emotional conundrum which, for most people, will at best result in an "I don't get it, what do they expect from me?" reaction, and at worst, in a "stop bullshitting me" outburst. But even if occasionally I begin to tend towards the latter, I still cannot help admiring all the crea­tivity, energy, and total dedication; and since even bullshitting can be raised to a form of weird art, I give the album a thumbs up all the same — not to mention the balls it took to release some­thing like that in 1988, when negative critical reaction could be so easily predicted.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Camel: Moonmadness

CAMEL: MOONMADNESS (1976)

1) Aristillus; 2) Song Within A Song; 3) Chord Change; 4) Spirit Of The Water; 5) Another Night; 6) Air Born; 7) Lunar Sea.

The last album to be produced by the original lineup, Moonmadness does bring on some lunar associations, but not much by way of madness, which is just not a state of mind that comes natu­rally to Camel music; Moonsadness or Moonmelancholia would have been a far more apt de­scription. In many ways, this is a return to the stylistics of Mirage, but it sounds more original and «Camel-native» than Mirage, without so many blatant Yes-isms or Crimson-isms and, for­tunately, without such an explicitly stated Tolkien influence. If anything, it represents the sym­phonic progressive ambitions of Mirage tempered with the «secluded loner vibe» of Snow Goose, so that some of the tunes come across as bold and humble at the same time.

Most of the record is taken over by five multi-part compositions, with the vocals making a slight, not triumphant, return — the focus remains on instrumental passages and their capacity of being woven into dynamic suites with constantly, though not too quickly, changing keys, tempos, and vibes of whose nature the band members themselves are often not too sure, so they just name the songs ʻSong Within A Songʼ and ʻChord Changeʼ to avoid a painful search for verbal interpre­tation of their own musical ideas. And indeed, how would one describe the seven minutes of ʻSong Within A Songʼ, other than «tastefully pleasant»? It goes through a slow nocturnal-pasto­ral section, with moody keyboard and flute solos, then through a «solemn» transitional phase with a repetitive guitar riff that never seems to find a proper resolution, and finally through a fast blues-rock, almost boogie, section with «astral» synth solos all over the place. It's a nice thing to have, and it is all much more restrained and less «rockish» than any given instrumental passage by Yes, but this also means that it does not affect the senses too heavily.

Things get quirkier and/or more focused later on, though. ʻChord Changeʼ is one of their best efforts in the jazz-fusion sphere, with some terrific guitar work from Latimer, sometimes playing «spiraling» descending scales that turn him into a less flashy Santana. ʻAnother Nightʼ employs grimly distorted power chords and psychedelic pedal effects to convey the feel of panicky despe­ration creeping up on you in the night — a well-known feel, for sure, but somehow they manage to transmit it by means of arena-rock tricks without making it sound like cheap arena-rock, if you follow me at all. ʻAir Bornʼ, for a change, has a really dainty vocal melody that agrees well with the synthesized string background. And ʻLunar Seaʼ, as follows from its title, sets itself the chal­lenge of combining «maritime» and «astral» atmospheres — and then rises up to the challenge by squeezing everything that is possible from Bardens' synthesizers, although I am not quite as sure if the song's sped-up, jazzier, more tempestuous passages truly evoke the feeling of a storm taking place in the middle of a «lunar sea».

Anyway, choosing between Mirage and Moonmadness to answer the question «which one of Camel's albums from the symph-prog shelf should be our first pick?» is very much a question of subtle and fickle taste; I vote for Moonmadness because my personal intuition detects faint traces of gentle sorrow and intelligent gloominess, many of them «felt» rather than properly «heard», which were sacrificed on Mirage to make way for a little more rockin' energy so that the guys could classify as true prog-rockers, with emphasis on the second part. On the other hand, it's not as if this here was some particularly breathtaking collection of superior prog rock melo­dies, either — too few of the themes rise above «nice» as far as their ability to rattle one's nerve strings is concerned. Thumbs up it is, after some deliberation, but still a small step down from the vibe of Snow Goose — although without Snow Goose in between, this would probably have been Mirage Vol. 2, so here's to maturity and continuous self-discovery.